Wolterstorff: The Sabbath Is Good In and Of Itself

In a lecture at the 1979 conference on Liturgy in Reformed Worship at Calvin College entitled, “Choir & Organ: Their Place In Reformed Liturgy,” Nicholas Wolterstorff stated the following:

“Characteristically we Reformed people think of going to church as going to sermon. And we think of the sermon as marching orders. In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday. For us, the fundamental question to put to the liturgy is always: What did we get out of it?

“But in biblical perspective there is clearly a second fundamental reason to assemble for the performance of the liturgy. It is right and proper—in the words of the old Latin Mass, dignum et justum—for us to acknowledge God’s majesty and goodness’s right and proper to sing praises to God for his works of creation and redemption, and for our status as new creatures in Jesus Christ. It’s right and proper to confess our sins. It’s right and proper to continue celebrating the supper of our Lord in memorial of him until he comes again. I know of course that it’s also right and proper to care for the poor of society, to work for peace, to build bridges, to create paintings. It must be said to the Reformed person—emphatically, because he’s so much inclined to forget it—that it is also inherently right and proper to perform the liturgy. This too is obedience. There’s profound truth in speaking of what takes place in our assemblies as a worship service. Worship, let’s not forget it, is part of our rightful service to God. Not only is liturgy for building us up unto obedience. Liturgy is for acknowledging God, in a tone of chastened celebration.

“I said that one question to ask of the liturgy is: What did we get out of it? In light of what I’ve just said it’s clear there’s another, namely, How did we do? How did we do in our attempt to acknowledge God with praise and confession, with thanksgiving and intercession? Did we do it at all adequately?”

In other words, worship, or the divine service of liturgy, is good in and of itself. Though they do receive as much, it needs no justification on the basis of what effect it has on the sinful agents involved. By extension, the Sabbath day, the day in which we both perform and receive the service, is good in and of itself, needing no justification for either its existence or observation. Worship is obedience. Worship is the primary and principle good work of the individual believer and corporate Church. Granted, Wolterstorff’s transformationalism zigs from two-kingdom zags with all that business about bridges and paintings. Eventually, this line of thought takes huge chucks away from his larger argument. Nevertheless, the point still stands however better propped up by two-kingdom views: the divine service, and its given day, is inherently, intrinsically, naturally and objectively good.

This seems fairly over against more modern notions that demand to know just what we get out of the Sabbath. It gives rise to what I call “Sabbath-as-recharge.” In this schema, the Sabbath is really not much more than a glorified day off. True enough, Sabbath can be located in creation and has its rightful place for creational rest. But as believers we have a citizenry in both kingdoms, it seems to me, and we must emphasize the redemptive bearing the Sabbath has. Sabbath-as-recharge seems to do several things.

First, it tends to neglect the redemptive dimension of the Sabbath for the creational one. In a post-resurrection age, the first day of the week for those who are believers is less about not mowing the lawn and more about living in obedient response to what it means to partake in the age to come. As needful as it may be to a certain extent, I find myself queasy when I hear believers prattling on about certain non/activities on the Sabbath, what should or should not be done. It seems to me that not only do these discussions over-emphasize creational concerns against redemptive ones, but more importantly, they sound like the concerns of latent legalists who forget that the gospel is about a life of response to the Law of God as covenant-keepers. Most assuredly, I am not one to think that duty and grateful response are mutually exclusive terms. Just ask my kids what their father expects every Sabbath. But whatever disdain I have for any notion of grace militating against obedience, I am equally appalled by legalism of any brand.

Second, as it emphasizes our creational existence, Sabbath-as-recharge seems to end up casting a negative light on our six days. But the fourth commandant begins, does it not, with the command to work and labor? The point may very well be on keeping the Sabbath, but the point also seems built upon an affirmative command. And are we not also commanded to “be in the world but not of it”? The thrust may be to not be of the world, but it also is built upon a positive and good thing, namely to be in the world. Sabbath-as-recharge almost seems to depend on a formulation of our six days as a necessary evil. It is heard that Monday begins that steady decline into a labor hell bent on taking something precious out of us, looking ahead to the coming Sabbath to refresh and enliven us once again. Yet, as Calvinists we should know there is nothing precious within that deserves such coddling. Also, it is interesting to note that when God ordained the Sabbath he did so retrospectively, not in an anticipatory manner; after having worked, God rested. Moreover, just as the Pauline antithesis is between this age and the age to come instead of the Gnostic duality between body and soul, it would seem that our six days and Sabbath deserve the same distinction: the problem with this age—in which we find our six days—is that it is passing away, not that it is inherently evil. The Sabbath points us beyond this passing age to an enduring one. In this way, Sabbath-as-recharge seems to have more in common with a Gnostic dualism than a Pauline antithesis.

Third, if it is not busy casting our six days as a necessary evil, it ironically wants us to see the Sabbath as subservient to them. Like Wolterstorff says, “In what we do Monday through Saturday, we say, lies the proof and worth of Sunday.” In other words, what really matters is how we live our lives, not how we worship God. Some have observed this as the “worship-as-homeroom” perspective, where we are simply checking in to get our instructions for the coming week. Our six days and the Sabbath are flattened out, the latter being a glorified former in order to bolster them. This is where we get the bias against those who have a high view of the Sabbath as being “hypocrites who only care about what they do on Sunday but live the way they please the other six days.” Here the concepts of liberty are chucked for the tyranny of “what a good Christian should look like” on common days.

The Sabbath, then, does not “recharge” us, at least, not the way the sarx naturally thinks of such things. True enough, Wolterstorff rightly acknowledges the question, What did we get out of it? There is much to be said for the fact that sinners “get something” out of the divine service. We do well to counter that which one finds in the contemporary religious landscape that seems more in keeping with a spirituality of performance than a piety of response: “Ask not what God can do for you, ask what you can do for God” is more American than Christian.

That said, however, it should be rather odd to hear confessionally Reformed believers talk about the Sabbath and worship the way they talk about an activity done in creation. Many amongst us eschew, rightly, a worship service that apes forms of entertainment that are centered on meeting some inward and subjective felt need of sinners. Yet these same folks can be heard saying they “just can’t get enough word and sacrament.” Some are heard to defend morning and evening services to say, “The question shouldn’t be why two services but why not three or four or more!” In such utterances it seems that what ailed Aaron’s sons may be afoot; one thinks of that other Americanism, “If one is good, two is better!” But like the physician to his patient, God has prescribed what he has to sinners for specific reasons. We are certainly nourished by the Sabbath and its resident activities, but not in the way we naturally think of being nourished. It seems to always be God’s way. In the theology of the Cross God is revealed by hiding. Paul speaks of God’s magnification through his own diminution. And we feast on proclaimed word, water, wafers and wine. In the same way that we are being sanctified, not improved, the Sabbath has its own objective value not readily discerned by sinners.

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